Dr Aric Sigman gave a lecture on screen dependency disorders to Elizabeth and Ladies’ College students at St James.
Screen dependency disorders is a blanket term covering all addictions such as phone, internet and online gaming.
‘These devices have ended up in our lives so recently, we haven’t worked out the protocols of how, where and when to use them,’ he said.
‘That’s what we now need to do, by coordinating times and places which are screen free, and a good place to start is always dinner time.’
Dr Sigman, a child health expert who has spoken at the Houses of Parliament and the European Union, said there can be worrying long-term effects of screen addiction in young people.
‘The medical community strongly believe the increasing exposure to idealised body shapes and appearance is causing much of the poor body image in young people, and may even cause eating disorders,’ he said.
‘Comparative behaviour is also a factor, believing other people’s online lives are better than yours can leave children feeling left out.
‘Another factor is late night use. Regular sleep deprivation may cause mental illness in children.’
The amount of time children spend on screens doing non-educational activities should be monitored, he said.
‘Under the age of two they shouldn’t have any. There is no evidence that infants’ brains are ready to benefit from what many presume is educational for them.
‘From two to 18, most countries agree, the maximum should be an average of two hours a day over a year of recreational screen time.
‘The problem we have at the moment is the average is probably about three times that amount.’
Parents played a large role in their children’s behaviour, he said, and they needed to take control of their habits.
‘Parental role modelling is a huge factor. If parents are spending more than four hours a day watching television, their child’s ten-and-a-half times more likely to do exactly the same thing.
‘We need to think about how, where and when we use the screen as adults. Don’t let messages and phone calls bleed into family interactions.
‘Ultimately, the parents are the ones that have to drive this. Parents can’t be best friends.’
Dr Sigman has four children and has implemented his ideas in his household.
‘They watch more than I’d like them to. I have to continue to nag and, of course, they’d like me to do something else for a living,’ he said.
‘They have phones which have to be out of their rooms about an hour before bedtime.’
His children have never had televisions in their bedrooms or gaming devices, and they were not allowed devices at the dinner table.
Dr Sigman added that one solution to reducing screen time by keeping children engaged was physical activity.
‘There is evidence that doing more sport is strongly linked with children becoming less likely to be addicted to the internet,’ he said.
‘Exercise produces the addiction chemical dopamine and computer games produce dopamine.
‘It may be that through exercising we’re paying off our children’s brain cells in advance, so they don’t need that buzz all the time.’
Dr Sigman had been invited to the island by the Friends of Elizabeth College to raise the issue to children and parents.